Gift supports occupational therapy fieldwork at CSU’s Early Childhood Center

Story by Tracy Kile Schwartz

Mike and Jody Werner with OT students and faculty
Left to right: Mike and Jody Werner, OT student scholarship recipients Tina Swearinger and Ashley Montijo, and OT Assistant Professor Lisa Fyffe.

Jo Karen “Jody” Werner (B.S., occupational therapy, ’70) and her husband Mike Werner (B.S., outdoor recreation, ’70) believe passionately in the value of hands-on learning experiences for all ages. Their recent investment in the Jody Werner OT Clinical Education Scholarship will benefit of occupational therapy students engaged in their final fieldwork experiences at CSU’s Early Childhood Center. Their gift also indirectly benefits the children, families, undergraduate students, and teachers at the ECC, which serves as the University’s lab school for early childhood education.

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Jody Werner at the Early Childhood Center.

Importance of early intervention

Jody leveraged her own OT education to pursue a career in hospital, school, community, and higher education settings. She capped off her career by training the next generation of OTs as assistant professor at Newman University in Kansas from 1997-2010. While there, she developed and taught the pediatric OT class. She understands the ripple effects early intervention can have on a child’s development and advocates simple adjustments that can support children’s needs within their everyday environments, such as home and childcare settings.

The Reggio Emilia-inspired approach of the Early Childhood Center aligns well with Jody’s OT philosophy. The child is seen as protagonist, a capable, strong collaborator and communicator. Parents and teachers are viewed as partners with the children and with one another. And, the environment is seen as the “third teacher,” a living, changing system that allows for exploration, adaptation, inquiry, and reflection. This versatility suits OT learning goals perfectly. And, the time is right for building these interdisciplinary bonds and student support.

Partnership between OT and the ECC

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OT fieldwork students Tina Swearinger, left, and Ashley Montijo work with ECC children.

“The opportunities for OT students to gain clinical experience onsite at the ECC is gaining strength, thanks to the Werners’ gift,” said Anita Bundy, head of the Department of Occupational Therapy.  “This strategic learning partnership between OTs and the ECC mirrors a larger shift within allied health from a disability-focused, reactionary service model to a more preventative and wellness-oriented service model,” she said. (Learn more here.)

The immersive, 12-week summer fieldwork experience at the ECC includes working with each classroom and age group, from infants to preschoolers. Each week, the OT students will devise and document enriching activities that also serve as diagnostic tools for a variety of physical, social, and cognitive developmental milestones. “We are grateful for the support from the Werners for this collaboration,” said Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the ECC.

Met first day on campus

OT students with ECC kidsMike and Jody Werner found their professional callings, and each other, at CSU. “We met in Green Hall on our first day on campus and have been together ever since,” Jody explained. In 2014, they invested in experiential learning at the CSU Mountain Campus (formerly Pingree Park) for students in the Warner College of Natural Resources with the Michael and Jo Karen Werner Pingree Park Scholarship Endowment.

While creating this fund, the Werners spoke of Mike’s “unforgettable experience that significantly impacted his entire career as a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Officer with the United States Air Force.” The Werners were motivated to ensure new students could have this same “awesome experience.”

Their new scholarship gift will similarly empower two OT students in hands-on learning that will propel their careers. The scholarship is to support OT students who want to do their fieldwork experience in an early childhood setting, with preference to the ECC.  “We are grateful that Mike’s and Jody’s gift is helping relieve the financial pressure of tuition for these students, so they may focus on the clinical education opportunities and connect with the ECC children and teachers,” said Lisa Fyffe, assistant professor of OT and site supervisor.

Since retirement, both Jody and Mike have engaged in meaningful volunteer roles in the community. Mike played a hands-on role as a streetcar conductor and at the Girl Scout History Center.  Jody draws on her OT background at Hearts and Horses, where she assists disabled children with therapeutic riding. She also teaches handwriting at her grandchildren’s elementary school. They know experiential learning and engagement can bring lifelong growth.

The Department of Occupational Therapy, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and Early Childhood Center are all part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.